Found art horsemen are magnets for travelers

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BROWNING, Mont. - Recycling and tradition were key points when Blackfeet artist Jay Laber created four sets of metal Indian horsemen for his tribe.

Laber, 38, was commissioned by the Blackfeet Tribe last year to build the horses and riders to be placed at the four main gateways to the 1.6 million-acre reservation. Tribal leaders say the sculptures and soon-to-be-completed interpretive signs will help tourists and other visitors realize they're on a reserve, as well as teach them a bit about Blackfeet lore.

The larger-than-life-size figures, perched atop foundations of stones from an old Catholic mission that burned years ago, are primarily old car parts from vehicles found in the Browning area. The horsemen's staffs are old sickle bars. Their hair and other small details are constructed from discarded barbed wire and cable.

Two sets of the sculptures have been erected; the others are expected to be in place soon, said tribal planning department official Marilyn Parsons.

"What we did was gather cars from the 1964 flood," which caused extensive damage in many areas of Montana, including a number of drainages that pour out of nearby Glacier National Park, Laber said. "We took whatever was available, basically, whatever we could get out. Everything was just found."

As part of the deal with Laber, the tribe agreed to hire workers to yank car carcasses out of various floodplains and haul them to where the artist could break them up and craft the pieces into the sculptures. Laber got help from other folks, as well.

The flood itself has special meaning for Laber, who now lives on the Flathead Reservation and teaches art classes at Salish Kootenai College (SKC). His family lost their house when a rampaging Kennedy Creek, which flows out of Glacier's Many Glacier Valley near Babb, swept out of its banks.

After the disaster, the family moved to New Hampshire, where his father had roots. Laber says after a time in the East, he hit the road for Alaska, Florida and Washington state before returning to Montana in recent years.

Along with creating art, Laber has toiled as a carpenter and construction worker. He says that background taught him how to properly shore up the horsemen so the Browning area's legendary wind doesn't blow them apart.

"That's really helped me with design," said Laber, who learned welding from a friend who advises to run a bead "until it looks good and then whack it with a hammer to see if it holds."

He added that he and a friend put the horsemen through an endurance test while hauling them over the mountains from his shop in St. Ignatius on a flatbed trailer. At one point, he said, they sped down the highway at 85 mph to see how the statues handled the wind.

Frequent chuckholes helped with the evaluation, he said.

In past years, Laber constructed a huge steel buffalo from abandoned Flathead Reservation cars and parts of an old bridge. That piece was bought by a museum in the former West Germany.

His first sculpture, another horse and Indian rider, sits in the yard of Flathead Reservation resident Corwin "Corky" Clairmont, a SKC leader who instructed Laber when he was a student at the school.

Laber credits Clairmont with giving him the inspiration to stretch his creativity.

"I didn't take art seriously until about a year ago," said Laber, who is also working on an intricate buffalo jump replica for a Browning motel. "I don't do any sketches. I just do it as I go. I have no idea what something will look like until I'm done with it."

Laber's tribal horsemen are eerily lifelike and they moan and creak as the westerly winds push through them. The two completed sites already have become magnets for thousands of passersby, just as the tribe intended.

Laber said he works in a variety of other art mediums, including painting, drawing and creating sculptures out of rock. He's been teaching other college students his trade since 1998.

"The teaching part is really fun," he said. "We do just about anything," from rock work to glass etching and everything in between.

He added that three of his art students took top honors at an American Indian Higher Education Consortium conference in New Mexico this spring.

"That made me real proud."